Wednesday 6 May 2015


Of course 'expats' are just emigrants. They only don't like to be called that way. These days, in Western Europe, the term 'migrant' is more and more associated to supposedly low-skilled people from less wealthy countries, who often have a darker skin, and/or are of a Muslim background, and who come to work and settle in the countries of the Wealthy, White West, sometimes without asking permission.

Europeans living abroad love to call themselves 'expats', although they are of course migrants. 'Expat' has increasingly become a class marker, a way in which privileged migrants from wealthy countries (and wealthy migrants from poor countries) tend to distinguish themselves from poor, low-skilled and undeserving migrants. Migrants do the dirty, dangerous and demeaning ('3D') and underpaid jobs shunned by many Europeans, but are at the same time often treated as potential job thieves and benefit scroungers or as threats to safety (terrorists!), social cohesion and cultural unity. 

UKIP election graphic encouraging 'Expats' to register for 2015 national elections

All of that of course does not apply to Europeans when they themselves move abroad to work and settle in foreign lands. In sheer contrast to the moral outrage about the 'illegal migrant', 'expats' often do not even bother applying for a residence permit in their host countries. Either because they don't need one, or because nobody bothers them if they don't have one.

Between 1998 and 2000  I lived in Morocco for two years on a string of tourist visas, which I renewed by hopping out and in of Morocco forth and back from the Spanish enclave Ceuta on the same day. It is very unlikely Europeans who overstay their visa in Morocco - and most countries in the world - will end up in migrant detention and get deported. And if they are asked to leave, they are highly unlikely to do so handcuffed. 

This is called privilege. And many Europeans (as wel as North Americans and citizens of a handful of other lucky nations) are hardly aware of it. They take for granted that it is their right to go anywhere, to impose their presence, while not being bothered about how 'locals' perceive them. They have done so since colonial times. It starts at a young age. Students find it completely normal to have gap years, to travel around the world, or to work or volunteer for a year or so in a far away country. We go on holiday wherever we want, and more and more people retire in lands where the sun shines and care workers are cheap.

Wherever Europeans find a job, residence and work permits seem to drop magically out of the air, or we simply don't bother getting one, or it is done for us by our employers. Those working for private companies, diplomacy or as development workers in poor countries tend to live luxurious, but highly segregated, lives as 'expats' in gated communities and compounds. When they interact with 'locals', it tends to be the elites, who speak the same languages and have similar manner and levels of education. 

Looking at migration, we still live in a colonial world order. Double standards are typically applied to the migrant 'other' and the expat 'us'. While migrants are expected to learn the language and to assimilate into 'our' culture and society - and 'we' complain if they refuse to do so, or not fast enough, or not wholeheartedly enough to our taste - 'expats' are generally exempt from such demands.

English speaking citizens of wealthy OECD countries set the international standard. Haughtily, 'expats' often do not bother to integrate at all, and nobody would dare to ask them to do so. They can live for years, if not decades, in other countries without speaking one word of the local language. Because they have the power to do so so and to ignore what others think. 

Such double standards also become visible in the schizophrenic positioning of politicians on migration issues. During the 2014 municipal elections in the Netherlands, the right-wing liberal VVD party of PM Mark Rutte was campaigning with election posters featuring the text "In Rotterdam spreken we Nederlands" ("In Rotterdam, we speak Dutch") to clearly signal the VVD's anti-multicultural credentials. However, the same rules did apparently not apply to 'expat' migrants - overtly shown by another VVD election poster targeting resident foreigners who have the right to vote in local elections, which proudly stated (in English!) "Why do expats living in Amsterdam vote VVD?".

The contrast in attitudes towards expats and migrants was also visible in the graphic (see above) used by the anti-immigration United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in a campaign to encourage 'expat' Britons (an estimated  5.5m in total  –  of which about 2.2m live in the EU- almost the same number as the 2.3m EU citizens in the UK) to vote in the 2014 national elections. So, ironically, by "harnessing that xenophobe expat vote" the UKIP tried encouraging British emigrants to vote them in to keep immigrants out of Britain.

Such contrasts in attitudes reveals the double standards applied to the expat 'us' and the migrant 'them'; as well as the superiority thinking underlying this distinction. 


  1. Wonderfully stated. Double standards are the norm, unfortunately.
    It's human nature.

  2. While I like that you consider europeans to be a single group in terms of this expat privilege. I do not think that applies within the EU As a Czech citizen living in the UK I have noticed that in the minds of locals, I am often,based on nationality, sorted into the immigrant box rather than the expat one.


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